PROVO — Way back in July, when the BYU coaching staff was studying the just-released Mountain West Conference basketball schedule for the first time, coach Dave Rose's eyes locked on the regular-season finale, on March 5, at home against Wyoming.
"Hopefully," Rose told his assistants, "that game means something and we're playing for a conference championship."
Months later, the No. 3 Cougars indeed have an opportunity to claim at least a share of the MWC championship today (1:30 p.m., The Mtn.) against the Cowboys.
But Rose could never have imagined the anomalous circumstances surrounding this contest.
On Tuesday, starting forward Brandon Davies, the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, was suspended for the rest of the season because he violated the Honor Code, which prohibits premarital sex.
The following night, New Mexico dismantled a shorthanded, emotionally spent BYU squad, 82-64, at the Marriott Center.
This all came on the heels of one of the Cougars' biggest regular season victories ever, an 80-67 triumph over San Diego State on national television one week ago.
On Monday, the Cougars (27-3, 13-2) earned their highest national ranking in 23 years. As recently as Tuesday afternoon, BYU was being projected as a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament and as a serious contender to reach the Final Four.
But Rose is focusing on what this team has already accomplished, with the MWC Tournament tipping off next week at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
"Since I've been here, in 13 years as the head coach and an assistant coach, I can't remember a time when going into the tournament that there's a pretty good likelihood that we're going to be in the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens in Vegas," Rose said. "Those are all things this team needs to grasp onto and know that they've earned it, they deserve it. What we need to do is work through this and continue to play well together and find ways to win games. This team has found ways to win games all year. I have all of the confidence in the world that we'll continue to do that."
Today, the Cougars face a Wyoming team (10-19, 3-12) that is coming off an 85-58 whipping at home against San Diego State. A month ago in Laramie, BYU escaped with a narrow 69-62 victory over the Cowboys in a battle that was in doubt until the final minute.
Five days after that game, coach Heath Schroyer, a former BYU assistant, was fired and replaced by associate head coach Fred Langley, who is serving as the interim coach for the remainder of the season.
Can the Cougars regroup in the face of so much adversity this week?
"Our guys are disappointed. We had a huge challenge and New Mexico played really well. They beat us. Our guys know that," Rose said. "Now we're faced with a new challenge — to respond when we've been beat. The first two times we've been beat we've come back and won that next game. Hopefully we can do that (Saturday)."
Added Rose: "I think we learned a lot about our team (Wednesday) night. Our team learned a lot about each other. I'm one that would much rather learn lessons from a victory than a loss. But what has happened with this group is, they've been tested. That challenge, they didn't meet. Now we'll see how they respond. I like the way they've responded in the past. I have confidence that we'll continue to respond that way."
BYU still needs to figure out how to compensate for the loss of Davies in terms of his size, defense, rebounding and inside scoring.
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